Press muse – Calling STOMP’s bluff

Once upon a time, when laypersons chance upon information they deem of relevance to a wider audience, they’d be inclined to pay deference to the professionals – they couldn’t disseminate the information themselves anyway. So they tip some reporters off and leave them to it.

Appraised of the potentially newsworthy information, the paid word-slingers would then employ their repertoire of journalistic skills, garnering information to craft a succinctly informative news story. Inevitably, at the end of this process the original source disappears behind layers of legwork and prose, occasionally surviving in the story as a quote or a gracious acknowledgement by the reporter.

Enter Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web. Et après internet le deluge. For the first time, the world was any old punter’s oyster, so long as he or she had a word processor and a modem. A growing proportion of society could bypass the prohibitively high entry costs of the media industry and circumvent the whims of idiosyncratic media moguls and finicky editors. Laypersons, once only capable of being news sources, could now if they wished become their own publishers, editors and journalists.

Close to two decades into the internet epoch, new media operations – blogs, news aggregators and alternative news media – have flourished. Americans have their Drudge Report and Huffington Post, Britons tuck into insights from Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes, and our neighbours swear by their Malaysiakini. Singapore, however, has nothing quite like them. The gap in local new media landscape yawned enticingly, too good for the Straits Times to pass up.

Stomping into the market

In June 2006 the paper forged into this virgin frontier with the launch of the Straits Times Online Mobile Print. Or Stomp. An amalgamation of news, gossip, entertainment and social networking functions, the new $2 million integrated web portal prides (and markets) itself on its journalistic pretensions. On its Singapore Seen page, where its journalism goes, visitors are told:

“You generate the content. You write the reports. You take the photos. You shoot the videos.”

In essence, Stomp cedes journalistic responsibility to you – the reader/consumer/netizen. You, an amateur untainted by professional prejudices, can try your hand at deciding what is or isn’t newsworthy, snapping some shots to document the event and writing it up into a short report. The result is sort of like a daily aggregator, gathering public submissions from across the Republic. A typical story leads off with a photo, perhaps a video, followed by a short 100-word caption draped with colourful quotes from the contributor him or herself. Like this one, posted on Saturday (27 March):

Teens kiss and behave intimately in centre of public walkway in broad daylight

STOMPer Lee-lee was shocked when she spotted this young couple behaving very intimately in public. There were people walking around, but they didn’t seem to care, added the STOMPer.

In an email to STOMP today (Mar 27), the STOMPer says:

“I was visiting my friend and happened to see this out of the window and so I took some pictures.

“At one point, I think the guy had his hands in her pants. Teens nowadays are so ‘open’. They just make out in the day with people walking about.

“I wonder if it’s due to their upbringing.”

After taking in Lee-lee’s report, readers are invited to pick a phrase that best represents their gut reaction, from an emotion spectrum known as “The Mood Meter” – Enraged / Shiok! / LOL! / So sad / Sure or not? / Bochup. And while you came for the sleazy images, please stay for the rancorous comments; there’s where it’s really at.

If we take the Straits Times’ word for it, their pride and joy is the best thing since sliced bread:

“[Stomp’s] success can be attributed to its becoming a household name for citizen journalism. Singaporeans young and old are saying ‘Let’s Stomp this’ whenever they come across newsworthy incidents and events in their neighbourhoods.

“These citizen journalists take pride in seeing their stories, photographs and videos uploaded in Stomp’s most popular feature, Singapore Seen.”

Call me a bluff old traditionalist, but sources don’t become journalists simply because they skip the middle man and broadcast their information directly to the world. To claim otherwise is to say that journalism is nothing more than the capacity to disseminate information on a massive scale, rather than the gathering and production of that information in accordance with a set of principles enshrining an obligation to the truth. We wouldn’t consider propagandists to be journalists, would we?

A historian, for example, isn’t just someone who writes about the past. Rather, history is the product of a process – of discovering and verifying discrete historical facts, interpretation of these facts to produce historical evidence, collating evidence to formulate a historical thesis. In the same vein, a journalist – professional or amateur – isn’t just someone who writes about or presents information on the immediate past, the ongoing present or the future. Journalism is the product of a process – of discovering and verifying discrete facts, interpretation of these facts to produce evidence, piecing the evidence to produce a coherent story or commentary.

The process is also continuous, as American political journalist David Broder explained in his 1981 book Behind the Front Page:

“…the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past twenty-four hours – distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias – by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour.”

“If we labelled the product accurately, then we could immediately add: “But it’s the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow, with a corrected and updated version.”[1]

The unfortunate reality about Stomp is most of its content are unprocessed snippets of information, captured on the fly, posted off the cuff and published with few questions. If there is any follow-up “with a corrected and updated version” at all, it occasionally comes from readers crowd-sourcing or official clarifications from an involved party. Truth in the Stomp brand of journalism is apparently incidental, rather than the result of principled dedication to verification.

If Stompers aren’t quite doing journalism, they aren’t doing ‘citizen journalism’ either. Lacking full autonomy over their work, they instead feed a media operation owned and controlled by industry professionals. Stompers aren’t their own publishers, editors and journalists. They have no say in what makes the final cut. The Stomp editorial team does.

Less than a month after Stomp’s official launch, academic and former Straits Times journalist Cherian George revealed on his blog what he had told the a Straits Times reporter (who conveniently ignored it and cherry-picked a better quote) about Stomp:

“I don’t consider STOMP to be citizen journalism, because it puts the public on tap, not on top. It merely introduces greater interactivity to traditional journalism. Citizen journalism in the proper sense does its own agenda-setting. Citizen journalists decide what questions need to be asked and what topics to pursue. They don’t just answer questions decided by mainstream editors.”

He went on to explain:

“To me, it is not the source of facts or opinions that distinguishes citizen journalism from the mainstream – just because a story or picture comes from a reader does not make it a piece of citizen journalism. Instead, it boils down to who selects and decides what stories to pursue and publish. Editorial decision making is what separate journalism from gossip. STOMP, like the rest of ST, is edited by professional ST journalists, not ordinary citizens.”

By feigning the empowering of citizens under a facade of user-driven content generation, Stomp creates a win-win situation, so to speak. Stomp monetises the unique web hits and tabloid fare served up by eager volunteers, Stompers indulge in cathartic acts of self-importance, and readers get their daily gossip for free.

Comment is free, but factoids are golden

The façade of devolved journalistic responsibility also provides a useful ethical grey area. It ostensibly absolves the Stomp team of the obligation to ensure the veracity of their content, shielding their own ‘journalistic bona fides’ – not that they had any to begin with – from scrutiny.

On 26 March, Stomp published a photo from Stomper Boon purportedly showing an SMRT bus running its route with a dangerously worn-out tyre, its driver therefore putting lives at risk. The veracity of this report appeared dubious to some Stompers, who insinuate that the photo was taken at a workshop rather than on a public road. Ultimately, however, an SMRT response acknowledging the incident would vindicate Boon’s claims.

A week later (on April Fool’s no less), Stomp outdid itself with a superlatively inane effort – ‘Ghost’ of Caucasian woman captured on photo at Sembawang Rd canal.

Such affairs are instructive about the Stomp team’s approach to ‘citizen journalism’. They do not deign it necessary to independently verify the information they receive – instead they would publish dubious material anyway, and allow Stompers to self-police. A rather perplexing attitude, since most would consider a conscientious, honest effort at truth-telling to be a rather salient characteristic of any type of journalism.

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred,” wrote Guardian editor CP Scott in a 1921 essay celebrating the centenary of his beloved newspaper. But while Stomp readily invites comment, it appears to have much less time for facts. Such disregard was famously defined and described by philosopher Harry Frankfurt in a celebrated 1986 essay titled “On Bullshit”. He wrote:

“The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”

Stomp doesn’t propagate lies with deceptive intent, but it cares not for the truth value of the information it receives and distributes. What matters is how the content might enhance its commercial position. It (mis)represents itself as a news website with pretensions to citizen journalism, when its fundamental concern is monetising the new media market.

Its About Us page is highly instructive in this regard. Spending little time on ‘citizen journalism’ and waxing lyrical about its achievements, the blurb addresses neither readers nor users, but prospective investors. It concludes:

“Stomp’s hyperlocal success is your solution. We have unparalleled reach into the hearts of Singapores [sic] and the resources to tailor-make approaches to maximise your brand.”

When we see Stomp as a child of the capitalist logic and sycophantic slave to commercial pressures, it becomes easier to understand as a media operation. It deals in easy-to-digest and cheap-to-produce ‘junk food news’ – or in Carl Jensen’s words: “sensationalized, personalized, and homogenised inconsequential trivia which is served up to the public on a daily basis”. It plays to the lowest common denominators of base human interests and moral outrage, focusing on the banal to satisfy the base, cleansed of context and often coated with reactionary vitriol.

Stomp is the tabloid gone viral, the daily gossip aggregator, the paparazzi out-sourced. It is what The New Paper’s website should have been, if they could afford it.

Cogito, ergo sum?

To be sure, entertainment news and gossip isn’t necessarily bad journalism – but Stomp, rather calculatedly, facilitates only this sort of news reporting, and even then with scant regard for basic journalistic principles, or even for the truth. It should hardly be surprising that this disingenuity is just as evident in Stomp’s parent publication.

The Straits Times – no stranger to monopolistic hubris – accords to Stomp exclusivity to this title of ‘citizen journalism website’. Facilitated by the paper’s commercial dominance of the local media landscape, it is a self-indulgent legitimacy conferred by fiat through shameless print and online plugging.

Nothing else, it seems, deserves the honorable epithet of “citizen journalism website”. Pretenders to the throne like The Online Citizen or Temasek Review (described in this Straits Times report by its previous name The Wayang Party) are merely “socio-political blogs”, whilst eminently qualified commentators who pen opinions – much like the Straits Times’ own ‘senior writers’ do – are typecast as ‘bloggers’.

Perhaps they imagined bloggers/citizen journalists to be poorer cousins to the professionals that they themselves are, capable of only superficial tosh. David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and producer/writer of the highly-acclaimed HBO series “The Wire” certainly thought so. At a United States Senate hearing on the “Future of Journalism”, he disparaged the ability of citizen journalists to produce “high-end journalism”:

“…high-end journalism – that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place – is a profession; it requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending.”

“I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training, or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.”

But Simon was wrong; citizen journalists can supplement and match the work of professionals. And they already have, as Gawker’s Ryan Tate showed when he refuted Simon’s claims:

“…as a newspaper reporter who spent a few years covering a town much like Baltimore – Oakland, California – I often found that bloggers were the only other writers in the room at certain city council committee meetings and at certain community events. They tended to be the sort of persistently-involved residents newspapermen often refer to as “gadflies” – deeply, obsessively concerned about issues large and infinitesimal in the communities where they lived.

“Collectively, these bloggers are doing just what Simon suggests: attending meetings, developing sources and holding government accountable every day. And the best of the crop are doing so individually, on their own and, somehow, basically for free.”

Stomp isn’t, as they love to claim, the best citizen journalism has to offer in Singapore – if it is that at all. Citizen journalists and bloggers here can and have indeed produced what Simon considers “high-end journalism”, covering beats less trodden or utilising their professional expertise to analyse current issues. Notwithstanding Stomp’s pretensions, the first steps have already been taken toward a genuinely pluralistic news media landscape, perhaps something like that envisioned by Arianna Huffington:

“For too long, traditional media have been afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder – they are far too quick to drop a story – even a good one, in their eagerness to move on to the Next Big Thing. Online journalists, meanwhile, tend to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder… they chomp down on a story and stay with it, refusing to move off it until they’ve gotten down to the marrow.”

“In the future, these two traits will come together and create a much healthier kind of journalism.”

[1] Broder, David, Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News is Made (Simon & Schuster, 1981).


~ by spiegel2071 on April 5, 2010.

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